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This photo shows a challenge course participant smiling as he takes a rest after climbing to the first platform on the accessible climbing tower.
What is Challenge?

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What is Challenge?

“Tell me‚ I’ll forget. Show me‚ I may remember. But involve me, and I’ll understand.”

- Chinese Proverb

What is Challenge Education?

Challenge Education is an action-oriented methodology that utilizes elements of risk taking, problem solving, and purposeful reflection to enable individuals to learn and grow from experiences. Its theoretical principles are based on the philosophy of Experiential Education, which proposes engaging learners in the educational process, promoting a hands on approach, and stimulating authentic thoughts and reflections in order to promote effective learning.

What are Challenge Courses?

In this photo, a man wearing a safety harness and helmet pulls himself from one side of a high challenge element to another by using his hands.  In the background, two men are standing next to the participant’s wheelchair on top of the challenge platform.
A challenge participant shows his strength as he pulls himself across a hand-line.

Challenge Courses consist of a series of structures or elements built in order to challenge participants physically, emotionally and mentally. These structures can be built close to the ground (low course) or stand high above the ground (high course) and are mostly constructed on trees, poles or metal structures. Challenge Courses are typically built outdoors, but indoor courses are becoming increasingly popular in order to allow for year round programming. Ropes Courses and Ropes Challenge Courses are other common names found in the literature when referring to Challenge Courses.


The military have been using " confidence courses" perhaps ever since the Ancient Greeks groomed their young soldiers via horse-riding and other adventure activities. During the 20th century, as mass education in schools became more popular, playground and climbing structures were increasingly provided on school grounds and in community spaces. With the advent of the Outward Bound movement in the 1940's and Project Adventure in the 1970's, it has become increasingly popular to create artificial adventure activities for recreational, educational, developmental, and therapeutic purposes. Today, there are roughly 10,000 to 13,000 challenge courses in the United States with about 250 new courses being built each year.

The Process

This photo shows a group of men who are blind–folded‚ walking in a line with one hand on the shoulder of the person in front of them.
A group of challenge participants work on building trust and communication skills as they take a “Sherpa Walk ”

At the core of challenge education is risk taking. The risks that participants take on the challenge course are predominantly perceived risks, particularly on the higher elements. The process involves physical, psychological, emotional and social risk taking, with consequences that support learning from the experience. As participants venture outside their comfort zones, the stage is set for behavior change. In this stage of disequilibrium, participants are challenged to explore ideas, strategies, and behaviors to reestablish a functional environment. The learning comes from the reflection on the processes and behaviors experienced, enabling participants to gain insights and skills which they can then transfer to other situations in life. For example, individuals with specific needs find a supportive environment to push their own limits and ascertain their strengths: a group of executives participating in a ropes course program can explore how to perform under stress; or youth going on an extended wilderness trip can develop valuable decision making skills.

Challenge education is implemented utilizing many different modalities or tools, including, but not limited to, challenge course activities, adventure pursuits, and wilderness camping. The nature of these modalities requires giving special attention to training, supervision, equipment inspection, and policies in order to manage risks and provide a safe experience.

Facilitated Experiences

The goals of challenge education are very broad, ranging from recreational pursuits to educational‚ developmental or therapeutic benefits. It is the facilitator’s responsibility to learn about participant’s goals and specific needs and to design and deliver a purposeful program that meets their stated desires.

In this photo, a group of men hang onto each other as they attempt to trade places with other teammates, while keeping their balance on a wooden beam without touching the ground below.
This group is working on teamwork and communication skills as they try to cross the beam and teammates without touching the ground or knocking another teammate off of the beam.

In order to ensure participants are physically‚ mentally and emotionally ready to safely participate and learn from the experience, an experienced facilitator provides participants with a sequence of activities that are sensitive to group development stages . Through close observation and interactions with the group, facilitators can gauge the group's progress and make necessary adjustments to the program. This process should be continuous throughout the entire experience‚ considering group development is a very dynamic process. Another way to support a participant’s degree of readiness for the experience is to empower them to make decisions on the level and intensity in which they want to participate. This is commonly known in the field as “Challenge by Choice” (See Glossary of Term by Project Adventure).

In order to provide a purposeful and safe experience, challenge education facilitators must be competent in a variety of skills. Although currently there is not a recognized national certification for this field, professional organizations such as the Association for Experiential Education, American Camp Association and Association for Challenge Course Technology are making great strides toward this goal as they work to provide standards of best practices for the facilities and professionals that currently provide these types of challenge experiences.

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